150th Birthday of Agnes Pockels

150th Birthday of Agnes Pockels

Author: Sarah Millar

Agnes Pockels was a pioneer in the field of surface tension and the measurement of surface films, despite having no formal higher education. She was born February 14, 1862 in Venice, which at that time was part of Austria. She and her family moved to Brunswick, Germany, in 1871, where she attended the Municipal High School for Girls. At school, she showed a keen interest in physics, but was not permitted to go to university to study further. Instead, she taught herself from textbooks she borrowed from her younger brother who was studying physics at the University of Göttingen, Germany. Even after it had become acceptable for women to attend university, Pockels remained at home to care for her ailing parents.

Despite these difficulties, Pockels conducted many experiments on the effects of substances on water surfaces. She developed a precursor to the Langmuir trough and made a range of detailed observations over a period of ten years.

In 1891, she became aware of Lord Rayleigh’s work on the properties of water surfaces and contacted him by letter to inform him of her observations. Rayleigh translated her letter and sent it, with an accompanying note, to Nature. The publication of this letter marked the beginning of Pockels’ acceptance within the scientific community and she published several more articles over her lifetime. In 1931, she was awarded the Laura Leonard Prize jointly with Henri Devaux for “Quantitative Investigation of the Properties of Surface Layers and Surface Films”.

In 1932, three years before her death, Pockels received an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Brunswick, Germany.


Also of interest:

This is the answer to Guess the Chemist from February 5, 2012.

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